Saturday, February 20, 2010
Seven years ago tonight one of the greatest tragedies in music history happened. At about 11:05pm on what was a Thursday night, the band 'Great White' took the stage at a Rhode Island club known as 'The Station' and began to play the opening strains of their song "Desert Moon".
For 99 of the bands fans, and one of it's own members, what appeared to be the beginning of a night of great music would instead turn out to be the final moments of their lives.
As Ty Longley blasted into the opening chords of "Desert Moon" with his bandmates, the 31-year old was enjoying all that the rock and roll life had to offer. He was young, playing the music that he loved in front of enthusiastic fans for a living, and had a beautiful girlfriend who was expecting the couple's first child.
The Sharon, PA native Longley had joined Great White just three years earlier, well after the band had enjoyed their greatest success during the big-hair 'glam rock' days of the late 1980's. Back then the song "Once Bitten, Twice Shy" was heard across radios everywhere and the accompanying music video was an MTV staple. By that fateful night in 2003, the band was struggling for survival.
Great White had formally broken up during the period of 2000-2001, but original members Jack Russell and Mark Kendall decided to put on a tour together. Doing classic Great White songs and some of Russell's solo work, the band actually billed itself as "Jack Russell's Great White". Some of the original band's fans simply referred to them as 'Fake White', and it was this group that Longley joined as a guitarist and keyboard player.
Along with Russell, Kendall, and Longley the band on the night of February 20th, 2003 consisted of bassist Dave Filice and drummer Eric Powers. The group exploded into "Desert Moon" to the roar of their fans at the small club, both literally and musically.
As the band began to play, tour manager Daniel Bichele set off some pyrotechnics for dramatic effect. The display was intended to look like a shower of sparks flying off in every direction, principally around the rear of the band by the drummer area. As the sparks flew off, they struck soundproofing foam that was on both sides of the drummer's alcove, and a small fire began which many thought was part of the act.
The fire quickly got out of control, spreading to the ceiling and sending smoke billowing through the club. The band continued to play for a minute, not knowing what was going on, when they suddenly realized something was wrong. As they stopped playing, Russell commented "Wow, this ain't good" and fire alarms began to blare in the club.
Realizing now that there was an emergency situation, the band and their crew starting fleeing towards an exit off to the side of the stage as the crowd began to stampede towards the main entrance. Crushing one another in the small entry way, many from the audience were trapped. Of the 462 fans in attendance, 99 died and another 130 suffered varying degrees of injuries.
Ty Longley and the band had apparently escaped out the side exit to safety, and to this day a couple of the band members have no idea how he died. However, witnesses say that Longley was out safely, but then went back into the club to retrieve his guitar. That would prove to be a bad move, because the fire spread so rapidly and the smoke grew thick and overwhelming quickly. Any action other than immediately exiting and staying out was a fatal act.
Just four days earlier, 21 people had died in a similar nightclub stampede at a club known as 'E2' in Chicago. As an ironic result, on the night of February 20th, local station WPRI-TV of Providence was at The Station to do a report on nightclub safety.
Their cameraman and reporter captured most of the tragic incident live as it happened and released footage to national news media in the immediate aftermath. The cameraman, Brian Butler, later said: "I never expected it take off as fast as it did. It was so fast. It had to be two minutes tops before the whole place was black smoke."
There were some claims that Butler and reporter Jeffrey Derderian were obstructing the escape routes for some by trying to record the incident. WPRI was among the numerous targets of law suits and criminal complaints in the aftermath.
Bichele and the club managers all eventually received prison sentences, and all have subsequently been released. The club itself is now an empty lot where surviving family members and friends still leave crosses and other memorial markers and items.
While the fire at The Station was not the worst of it's kind in U.S. history, it was one of the worst, and it was the worst in recent history. The tragic lesson for fans who attend concerts, especially at small arenas, is to make sure that you know where the emergency exits are located. There were apparently at least three under-utilized emergency exits at The Station that night as fans streamed for the main entrance at which they had entered.
As for the band, it took awhile but the original Great White got back together and is performing now. In the immediate aftermath, some of the bands shows were shut down by protesters. The band took to observing 100 seconds of silence for awhile, but has moved on from that practice, as well as the refusal for a few years to play "Desert Moon" on stage.
Acey Ty Christopher Longley was born to Ty's girlfriend Heidi Peralta on August 12th, 2003. Family, friends, and band management set up various funds in his name over the years, with a trust known as the 'Baby Longley Fund' having raised money from benefit concerts and a Ty Longley t-shirt. Ty Longley himself and the 99 fans of both the band Great White and music in general have been lost forever to Rock and Roll Heaven.
NOTE: this is a continuation of the "Rock and Roll Heaven" series, all entries of which can be enjoyed by clicking on the label below this article at the www.mattveasey.com website